interview with a stranger

Written on Feb. 25, 2010.

The air here in Da Nang is cool this afternoon, and the shade inside the dusty, cream-coloured offices of the Justice Department is a welcome change from the hot sun outside. I tap my thoughts and reflections out onto an iPhone as I wait for Quynh to finish her interview upstairs. We’re scheduled to be married in just over a week, and this set of interviews is the last legal hurdle to jump for our union to be recognized by the state – at least, besides signing a bunch more documents in triplicate.

I went under the scope first, and they brought in a translator to talk with me so they could make sense of my strange moon-language. The questions they asked were… bizarre. What’s her phone number? Her date of birth? Her email address? I guess I was expecting relevant questions, you know, like something besides what you’d put on a credit card application. But in retrospect, remembering what Quynh and I had discussed about the nature of the interview process, these banal questions make sense. They’re apparently intended to weed out arranged marriages, ones brokered through agents– proverbial “mail-order brides”.

I guess I always thought of the business of “mail-order marriages” as a big joke. I’d heard of stories regarding the practice and found them to be too unbelievable to be true. How could two people become so desperate– or morally directionless– as to reduce marriage to a mere transaction, to reduce a human being to a mere commodity? When Quynh explained to me that such “agency marriages” were a well-known (though strongly condemned) practice among Vietnamese women, I was filled with incalculable rage, so much so that I nearly fell off a speeding motorbike. it seemed to violate everything I’d ever believed about love, marriage, and human relationships.

supposedly the phenomenon is mainly driven by despair, on both sides. Quynh explained to me that many of the prospective husbands– the word “customers” brings my blood to a boil, although most are indeed customers– would be considered “past their prime”, and perhaps feel impotent to attract women in their own country. As a side note, some of Quynh’s neighbours have expressed astonished at how young I look– perhaps expecting her North American husband to be in his 50s. On the prospective bride’s side weighs the burden of percieved “marriageability”, or, in the case of a Vietnamese woman in her late 20s, the steadily dwindling levels thereof. In short, an unmarried woman over 30 years old is widely viewed as a failure. Such a perception isn’t unique to Vietnamese culture, but it’s much more pronounced here.

the story

tuk-tuk rideso you’ve been pondering, and wondering. and you’d really like to hear the whole story. well, here it is (slightly abridged, but here it is nonetheless).

Quynh and I met online last year, during Ridvan. The big news at that time was the Vietnamese Baha’i community’s official recognition as a religious community by its national government, a long-awaited event that ushered in a new era of religious freedom for Vietnam’s Baha’is. It was also around this time that I was considering going somewhere in the world to offer international volunteer service. After finding out that Quynh and I had close mutual friends (Craig & Geneviève, who met in Vietnam and now live in Victoriaville), I decided to make the connection, initially to find out more about Vietnam and explore service opportunities. We got along very well from the beginning, and before long, we began talking about the possibility of the two of us getting to know each other better and becoming a couple. From the summer onwards, we began to ask each other lots and lots of questions to help us along in becoming “thoroughly acquainted with the character of the other“. By the winter—after some time of becoming closer to each other through our frequent communications—it became clear to me that the only sensible thing to do was to plan on visiting Vietnam: at once to serve there (hopefully), and to meet Quynh in person. When I inquired with the Baha’i community there, they informed me that their newly-formed Spiritual Assembly required a website, and would I mind coming to work on it? With this positive response from abroad, I checked on whether my work situation would allow it, applied—and received approval—for unpaid leave, and told Quynh I was coming to see her in the spring.

After preparing for my trip during the winter months and tying up loose ends at work, I finally arrived in Vietnam (via Japan) on March 31st. Quynh stuck around to introduce me to a hectic and bustling Ho Chi Minh City—a city that needs a lot of introduction. She then continued on to Da Nang to assist the Baha’i youth there while I stayed behind to meet with a task force for management of the website. I joined her in Da Nang a few weeks later, just before the 2nd National Convention on May 1st and 2nd—just about a year after we had first met. We soon continued onwards to Hanoi together, where she was assisting the friends there to establish the foundation for their program of intensive community growth. It was while in Hanoi that we spent the most time talking together about our relationship, in person and on the phone (since we were staying in different houses). These long discussions laid down the path for us to become even closer, and eventually led me to ask for her hand in marriage on June 2nd, while taking a break in—yes that’s right—Hanoi’s Lenin Park. The mystery is solved!

On our return to Ho Chi Minh City in early July, we sought the consent of both sets of parents—hers in person, in her flat in Tan Binh District, and mine via Skype to Canada. (God bless Skype and its creators.) With consent from both parents, we set a date of August 4th for our engagement ceremony, which was held in her parents’ home in Da Nang, according to Vietnamese traditions, red boxes and all. Many of you probably wondered: what gives with all the secrecy? We never heard anything about it until the week before! Well, let’s just say that, after thorough consultation, we decided to keep it a low-profile event, and to announce the coming union after the engagement ceremony—until, of course, the news was leaked on Facebook by an overexcited sister, making the point moot and causing much rejoicing all around.

What’s in store for us now? Well, our current plans involve Quynh visiting Canada sometime during the winter (February, the month least hospitable to those hailing from hotter climates, seems most likely), and the both of us returning to Vietnam for the wedding, which will take place in Da Nang in early March, during the first few days of the 19-day Baha’i Fast. We’ll be together around a month after the wedding, after which I’ll be returning to Canada to continue my job while she continues hers—she’s working full-time for the Baha’i Faith in Vietnam until April 2011—and submits her application for a Canadian permanent resident’s visa. The eventual plan is for her to come to Canada—that is, if the Baha’is of Vietnam will allow her to go!

So there you go. There’s the story in a nutshell. A big, collective thank you to all those of you who sent us their best wishes, whether by email, on Facebook, on Twitter, by phone or in person. If we haven’t already, we’ll be sure to send you our individual thanks, and hope you will send your blessings our way in March. 🙂

warmth

back in Ottawa. the wind is colder here, and I have to bundle up in layers of clothes instead of spending all my time in t-shirts and shorts. it’s cloudy today, but the drab grey of the sky is set against vivid reds, oranges and yellows on the trees. Vietnam is more colourful, hands down, but it’s nice to see that Canada still puts up a fight in the beauty department. “like flowers of one garden”.

i’m seeing what’s around me with different eyes, hearing with different ears. now I can tell when someone around me is speaking Vietnamese, and I can actually understand some of what they say. I can read the signs in Chinatown (even some of the Chinese ones). I’ve taken to picking up dinner at the Thai place at the mall, because Subway just seems unappealing now. plus, of course, it reminds me of the real thing. my favourite Vietnamese restaurant (next to the Baha’i centre, no less) closed up shop, which annoyed me to no end. but there’s a new Thai place there now, so I figure I’ll go check it out next time I’m in the neighbourhood.

still adapting to being back in Canada, and more than just because of the cold weather. it’s about being plunged back into the culture of the West, a very palpably immoderate culture, a culture shaken loose of its moral basis and bereft of direction. a “lost” culture, I suppose. I fear it, because I fear becoming lost in it. being in Vietnam did me a lot of good, i think; especially in helping me discover my limitations and rely on my strengths to compensate for my weaknesses. Canada’s cool and detached (albeit friendly) social climate hasn’t done me much good, I think. despite my sociable manners in everyday life, I find I have trouble opening up to social relationships, so, left to my own, I tend not to seek out the company of others. Family-centred Vietnam, with its deeply and strongly woven fabric of social support networks, seems to have helped me stay on the outside of that self-centred bubble that the individualist Westerner blows up for himself.

sitting at home in front of a gas fire now. thank goodness it’s not cold in Vietnam. they don’t have to close their doors to stay warm.

let’s talk about chastity, let’s talk about you and me

bouquet and rings by boliyou (cc)Like many of my Baha’i friends who aren’t yet married, I wonder about what it takes to create a successful marriage. I wonder whether I’m strong enough, spiritual enough, or lucky enough to be able to make a “fortress for well-being” with another person and to make it last. I wonder why so many marriages end up in divorce, and fear the possibility of having to tread down that painful path. Marriage doesn’t sound like something I should have so many worries about—so why do I worry?

Recently posted on one of my many subscribed mailing lists was a quite thought-provoking article about Baha’i marriage which, if it didn’t answer all of my questions, at least showed me a new way I could look at them. It’s called Creating a New Bahá’í Marriage Culture, written by Raelee Peirce, a Bahá’í who works as a Parent Coach in North Carolina. The article explores how parents can help give their children a positive view of marriage and relationships. A short excerpt follows to give you a taste of it:

A list of “Do-Nots” is not a great way to inspire or create acceptance of this law. Instead, we should be emphasizing the joy of sex and what a fantastic gift it is within the marriage relationship when our children are young. We need to share with our preschoolers the idea of marriage and we need to discuss the concept of finding a husband or wife when our children are in grade school rather than entertaining the idea of boyfriends and girlfriends. We need to create a family culture that does not include our children or youth engaging in frivolous boy-girl relationships. For example, when a six-year-old talks about “liking” another of the opposite sex, one should not consider it cute and exclaim to others that Jamal has a little girlfriend. As a Bahá?í parent we need to say, “Jamal, it’s wonderful that you like Emma; it’s great to have lots of friends. One day when you are much older you will find a girl to be your wife and have a beautiful Bahá?í family!”

Read the article. What do you think? Does it make sense to talk to our children about marriage and relationships from an early age? What about the idea of having boyfriends and girlfriends—where does that fit in? What about the lessons we learn from popular Western culture (consciously or not)—shouldn’t everyone have as many boyfriends or girlfriends as possible to ‘try things out’ before settling on Mr. or Mrs. Right?

[Update- Sep.23, 2006]: If reading that article piqued your curiosity, then check out a related article on dating within religious communities on another Baha’i blog, Correlating.

Please leave comments on this post—it’d be nice to read people’s reactions to this article. If you have personal comments you’d like to leave for me, feel free to e-mail me!

Also, speaking of chastity, Mees has something to say on the matter.

photo by boliyou (creative commons)

both eyes open: marriage workshops

equality of men and women

Now here’s something I want to personally recommend to everyone reading this. Whether you’re single, married, divorced, or whatever, if you’ve EVER thought about marriage in any way, shape or form, Both Eyes Open, a marriage workshop facilitated by Baha’i authors Suzanne Alexander & Craig Farnsworth should definitely interest you. I’m going — it’s only $40 if you sign up before Friday, April 15th… it’ll be time well spent! This workshop can help you:

  • DEVELOP the skills and practices that assist in creating lasting marriages by getting to know one’s own character and understanding one’s partner’s character
  • LEARN vital consultation and communication skills
  • EXPLORE how to apply the principle of the equality of women and men within marriage
  • UNDERSTAND some of the spiritual practices that strengthen marriage
  • LEARN how to make unified service and time choices

This is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL stuff to help you understand how to create the “fortress for well-being” that is a strong and unified marriage. Come on out! There’s a session for couples on April 30th, and an open session (singles, couples and everybody else) on May 1st – both at St. Paul’s University, on Main St (close to Lees).

Read the brochure

comment for today

hehe. I had dinner at France and Jessika’s place last night, after said dinner got bumped from Sunday night to Tuesday night. It was still a really great dinner, and it was fun to hang out with them. We played Battleship and I won (tho not by much).

I told France that I liked Christmas songs too much and that I was trying to make myself hate them by listening to nothing but Christmas songs all day long. So far, I’ve had mixed results. I’m starting to hate some of the songs, like for example the “Winter Wonderland” one, or “Au Royaume du Bonhomme Hiver” as the French translation is titled. But I still love a whole bunch of them. Anyway, France laughed when I told her this, and she said something really funny… it was to the effect that, I guess your wife and kids are gonna have to watch out when you start a family… you might love them so much that you decide to make yourself hate them. I mean, it’s true, it is kind of pointless to try and make yourself hate something if you really like it. It’s like one of those girly sentimental movies where the girl is trying to make herself hate the guy and she only ends up falling madly in love with him (or vice versa). Not that I watch girly sentimental movies. Except when I’m goaded into it by girls. Guys, you know what I mean… you gotta keep the peace with the ladies, right? So you gotta make some sacrifices sometimes. To keep the ladies happy. So, from time to time, I have witnessed the odd girly sentimental movie. Not that I’ve ever cried during a girly sentimental movie, though. Definitely not. Especially not Titanic. I’m just digging a hole deeper and deeper for myself, here, and I think I’ll stop.